The Permanency of Change

The Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation. Ford’s Theater. Abraham Lincoln stands amongst a small few that can claim the title of our Greatest President. His life fills volumes of biographies, and the stories of Honest Abe capture young children’s imaginations. Many of us know the general arc of his story; the log cabin, his limited education and his early start as a lawyer. We won’t soon forget the top-hat and Shenandoah beard. His words speak to us as crisp and poignant as they did 150 years ago. His, weren’t speeches; they were sermons. Ronald Reagan, speaking about Lincoln during his first Inaugural Address said, “Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.” I second that notion.

US President Abraham Lincoln with his notable tall black top hat

Still, we reflect on the conflict between those who wanted to perpetuate slavery; the debasement of human nature and those wanted to abolish it, for all time. As kids, we learn about the secession, the formation of the Confederacy, and the War that would take more American lives than any other; Brother versus Brother. Many of us, as schoolchildren, memorized excerpts of the Gettysburg Address.  

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any other nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

the iconic Ford theatre, with American flags decoration the presidential box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated

April 14, 1865. Actors take their places backstage. The curtains rise on Ford’s Theater, commencing the final play Abraham Lincoln would ever see, “Our American Cousin.” A thespian-turned-terrorist, the coward John Wilkes Booth puts a longstanding plan into effect. Overcome with sympathy for the Confederacy and its barbaric institution, he creeps into Lincoln’s balcony. The President, recently re-elected and seeing the end of the brutal civil war on the horizon, bellows a hearty laugh, in response to a comical line. A bullet erupts from the barrel of the small Philadelphia Derringer in Booth’s hand. The laughter is silenced. The President slumps forward. Booth bombastically shouts “Sic semper Tyrannis,” as if he was the modern-day Brutus and Lincoln was Julius Caesar, reincarnated. Oh, if only Mrs. Grant didn’t loathe Mrs. Lincoln so; Ulysses would have been there that night; he could have done something. The General could have stopped the rodent, Booth. If, only.

Most of this is common knowledge. There is something else; something rarely taught that occurred earlier on that Good Friday, April 14, 1865. The Treasury Department didn’t begin until 1789, and America’s monetary system was in disarray during the 1800’s. It’s estimated that 1/3 of currency at the time, was counterfeit. This proliferation of counterfeit money exploded during the Civil War. President Lincoln was advised to create a commission to fan-out and put an end to it. They were quite successful; closing 200 counterfeit operations in their first year of operation. The legislation responsible for the creation of this new task force, was the last act of Lincoln’s presidency.

The name of the task force: Secret Service.

If a thousand thoughts cascaded across your head like comets; the same thing happened to me. The first President shot in cold blood, creates, that day, the organization now responsible for the protection of the President. It took me a full week before I could get my mind around it.

Unfortunately, shielding the President was not their original assignment. When we think of the Secret Service, we never think of counterfeit money. We surely don’t think of the paper resting on Lincoln’s desk the day of his premature death. We think of earpieces, aviator sunglasses, and jogging alongside the motorcade. It took another 36 years after their inception before the Secret Service officially became responsible for safeguarding the Commander-in-Chief. If only.

a secret service agent with sunglasses and an ear piece stands guard as a helicopter lands behind him next to the Washington monument

Think of all the things that started-off one way and ended up, another. How many moments in your life, do you wish you could go back and change? How does the concept and application of health, fitness or diet compare to what you originally thought or intended? I became a fitness professional in 2000, and the notions I held then are divergent from what they are today.

When I started, I considered “health” defined by the absence of disease. Since there’s nothing “wrong” with me; I must be healthy. A routine doctor’s appointment, a blood test, and a casual glance at my cholesterol were all I needed to evaluate health. Little did I know, it was not a lack of a malady but the abundance of vitality that defined health. How could I possess a “healthy” blood pressure, while simultaneously drowning in deep fatigue or weighed-down by stress? Were the numbers wrong, or was my concept of health out-of-focus? Could I be healthy when my physical and psychological health were at-odds? I had abandoned spiritual health and deemed it irrelevant. Could this explain the anxiety, and the feeling of stifled self-worth, despite a lack of illness and the image of physical fortitude? Today, I think about health differently and can easily become intoxicated with thoughts of traveling back in time and applying the epiphany to the young me. If only.

As a rookie, fitness meant “cardio.” The fitness of the cardiovascular system was the preeminent quality. If you didn’t run, bike, swim or overpower the stair-master; you were nothing. If your heart rate wasn’t XYZ; you didn’t qualify for the ranking of “fit.” The much-maligned Lance Armstrong was the embodiment of fitness at the time. Armstrong, a cancer survivor was winning an unprecedented amount of Tour de France races. His yellow Livestrong bracelets were harder to keep stocked than Tickle-Me-Elmo’s. I bought my road bike, Oakley sunglasses, a Polar heart rate monitor, and got to work. The ones who lifted weights were the men with amusing accents and tank-tops, tucked away in the corners of the gym; more circus performers than representatives of fitness. Now, strength has taken its rightful place on the throne of fitness. I’ve seen more people debilitated and kept from their active lives from a lack of strength than from anything else. Cardiovascular fitness is not obsolete, but subservient to strength. No longer is lifting weights for the large, bearded fellows on television, dragging airplanes with their teeth. Like a diamond’s facet, every turn reveals another brilliant side to the benefits of strength training. If Ponce de León was looking for the Fountain of Youth; it wasn’t a water spring, it was a barbell. Although I lifted weights since 1999, I didn’t begin serious strength-training until 2008, and my life was never the same. If only I had begun earlier. If only.

No concept has gone through more schizophrenic changes in the last two decades than diet. If you shut your eyes and pictured the ideal diet, what would you picture? Some might think of foods without carbohydrates. Some, foods with no fat. Others, only vegetables, and no meat. You may even picture a table-full of indulgences. Personally, I’ve done all the diets at some point or another, each time, convinced that this was “the one to end them all.” I’ve been a Paleolithic man and a ketogenic biohacker. I’ve been in the Zone and I’ve eaten right for my blood type. I’ve cleansed and even gone vegan, although, I could only manage that for 24 hours. Not even Wilson Phillips could get me to “hold on for one more day.” I’ve eaten clean and dirty, from organic, grass-fed bison with asparagus to a Double Whopper with cheese and onion rings. I’ve had scotch, Pepsi, and pH-balanced, electrolyte-enhanced water from Fiji. Oh, the time that was squandered leaping from one-diet-to-another like a frog to a lily pad. If only.

a round scale is placed between silverware on a placemat with a variety of fruit sitting on it to appear like a plate

We haven’t discovered an extra set of lungs. What we know about the human body, health, and fitness is largely unchanged over the past twenty years. The details of how we think about them, how we apply them and how we advance forward with them has. What we know about Abraham Lincoln is also largely unchanged. The small, stunning detail of him creating the Secret Service on the day of his assassination changes the way we think about that evening. How would have history unfolded? What would become of him, or us as a country and a people if the Secret Service was created a moment sooner and watching the balcony door vigilantly, instead of hunting-down counterfeit currency? The what-ifs become all-consuming. Eventually, we must come to terms that these are fantasies. The thoughts of going back in time and educating your younger-self on the superior ways of thinking about health, fitness, and diet, are also fantasies. We can’t alter the past. So, what then?

Remember your history, but don’t dwell. Learn from yesterday and prioritize a life well-lived with each fresh decision. You have the experience, the wisdom, and knowledge, today, to make a difference. Remember that health is not the absence of disease and not detached from psychological or spiritual health. Embrace strength as the central value of fitness. Diets form to fit us, not the other way around. Live with these in mind and you won’t daydream about a different history. Change can be beautiful. Or, you can spend the remainder of your days thinking, “if only…”